Thursday, August 16, 2007

Legacy of Stupidity

From the Economist's review of Legacy of Ashes:

The 1947 act that set up the agency gave it two tasks: briefing the president with intelligence and conducting secret operations for him abroad. In Mr Weiner's view the CIA was lamentable at both—and most presidents must take a share of the blame.

The CIA failed to warn the White House of the first Soviet atom bomb (1949), the Chinese invasion of South Korea (1950), anti-Soviet risings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), the dispatch of Soviet missiles to Cuba (1962), the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It overplayed Soviet military capacities in the 1950s, then underplayed them before overplaying them again in the 1970s.

The record of covert action is little better. In Japan, France and Italy the CIA sought to protect democracy by buying elections. It sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Syria and Iraq, where a Baath Party leader boasted in 1963, “We came to power on an American train.” When an invasion of Cuba masterminded by the agency failed, it plotted to kill Fidel Castro. In ascending order of bloodshed, it took a hand in military coups in South Vietnam, Chile and Indonesia.

One reckons many another tale of woe figures into Weiner's assessment, but this is a really nice synopsis of key debacles. We might throw the SOA in there for good measure.

Was such skulduggery worth it? Did the extra security for the United States outweigh the immediate human cost, the frequently perverse geopolitical consequences and the moral damage to American ideals? Doubters repeatedly warned presidents that on balance the CIA's foreign buccaneering did more harm than good. Mr Weiner has dug out devastating official assessments of covert operations from the 60 years he covers suggesting that many were not worth it. The sceptics were not peaceniks or bleeding hearts but hard-headed advisers at high levels of government.

We're not talking just operational ineptitude. We're talking about seriously stupid decision-making. Stupid and, in many cases, evil.

What we really need is a good intelligence organization. Why is that so hard?

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